Kennedy at Harvard: From Average Athlete To Political Theorist in Four Years

John F. Kennedy entered Princeton September 1935. Although both a father and brother had attended Harvard, Jack decided against it. He had not equaled his brother Joe's excellent record at Cheat and perhaps did not wish to be merely Joe Kennedy's brother at another school.

The future Senator and Presidential candidate spent only three months at Old Nassau. Near Christmas he concocted yellow jaundice and withdrew. The next autumn he came up to Cambridge along with the 938 other members of the Class of 1940.

September 1936, was a time of great excitement at Harvard. Dignitaries from all over the world had come to celebrate the University's Tercentennial. Franklin D. Roosevelt was campaigning for a second term. The Nazis were on the rise in Germany. Loyalists and Fascists fought for control of the Spain that they had changed into a battlefield.

Times were ripe for student radicalism in an America and a Cambridge just emerging from the Depression. But John F. Kennedy was by no means a radical. He was just a nice sort of chap who roomed in Weld 82.

If he dropped any water bombs or if he concealed women in his closet, they made very little noise. His proctor remembers him only as Joseph P. Kennedy's son, a quiet youth who had no claims to notoriety.


At Choate Jack had evinced little interest in academics and much in athletics. At the College his first successful venture was in sport.

He won himself a starting position on coach Henry Lamar's Freshman football squad. The program statistics read: end--19--6:1--Choate. "The most adept pass catcher was John Kennedy, but his lack of weight was a drawback," wrote the coach in his post-season review.

Jack played only one more year of football. His favorite sport was and always had been swimming. At the November time-trials his backstroke earned him a place on what, at the time, was the greatest Freshman team in Harvard history. The regular medley trio of Kennedy, Bob Urquhart, and Bill Rines consistently brought home the needed points and helped win the Yale meet, 42 to 33.

After swimming season, Jack focused his attention on campus politics. The new semester had brought with it the elections for president of the Freshman Class. Kennedy decided to run.

Lost First Election

When primary day arrived, campaign signs for 35 candidates dotted the lobby of the Union. Of those 35, six would remain after the first ballot. John F. Kennedy did not qualify among that six. The Class of '40 elected as its first president James D. Lightbody of Glencoe, Ill.

Kennedy's second venture into politics was more successful. He was elected chairman of the Freshman smoker committee.

"Elaborate plans have been made for the Smoker," declared the Freshman Red book. "The main feature will be Gertrude Nieces, the popular New York singer, backed up by a cast of forty entertainers. To add to the splendor of the party, Memorial Hall has been engaged as the place, two and free food, tobacco, and ginger ale will provide the rations."

With the bands and the comics, the smoke and the noise, the old Gothic jazz orchestras will furnish the music, structure must have seemed very much like a convention hall. Yet these were not delegates, but only enthusiastically partisan students, who were more, removed than they liked to believe from all national affairs.

During that winter and spring, politics continued to absorb almost everyone's attention. After victory in November, FDR pushed through his famous "court-packing bill" and added six justices to the Supreme Court. President Conant denounced the plan as "contrary to the spirit of a free, democratic country."